Time Magazine put Ben Bernanke on its cover. I would put this man on my cover. Abraham Lincoln turned 200 this past year. Lincoln, more than anyone, made what little that was positive over the past 10 years possible.
He was a deeply flawed man. He was self taught with maybe a year of formal education. He was from a poor isolated frontier family. He was a manic-depressive who believed that he could communicate spiritually with his dead sons. He married a compulsive neurotic Mary Todd. While he loathed slavery, he did not believe in equality for African Americans. He wanted an expanded version of James Monroe's Liberia, taking the African population of the United States and dumping them in Africa. He was willing to tolerate slavery to preserve the Union. The United States was to be preserved at the expense of African Americans. He could rule like a dictator when it was expedient to do so. He suspended Habeas Corpus and detained people without due process. Lincoln, more than anyone else, was responsible for the creation of the Imperial Presidency.
And yet, one of his fiercest critics, Frederick Douglass, became in the end one of his most ardent admirers and supporters.
Lincoln transformed the Declaration of Independence, with its famous opening paragraphs about liberty and equality, from a historic relic into a binding document. Lincoln understood the radical nature of the United States in relation to the rest of the world. As the historian James McPherson pointed out, most of the rest of the world in the mid 19th century looked like the Confederacy with its agrarian hierarchical society. No less a radical than Karl Marx appreciated the need for Lincoln to succeed in the war to preserve the union of the states. Marx campaigned tirelessly to win support for Lincoln's cause among the British working class. The British government, by contrast, was prepared to intervene on the side of the South, as was France under Louis Napoleon. Their textile industries depended heavily on cheap Southern cotton, kept cheap by slave labor.
Lincoln did the messy and dirty work of war and politics necessary to make the dream of universal enfranchisement based on universal human dignity into an attainable reality. He paid for it with his life.
Angels are above history and animals are beneath it. History belongs to us. It is not some abstract unfolding of idea, it is the creation of flawed mortals like ourselves. History is there to be made or broken. Historical inevitability is an illusion of memory. As a historian friend of mine always said, you can do all the structural analysis you want of why things happened; in the end, someone had to make a policy decision. How often history has turned on small random events like a missed phone call, a forgotten appointment, a lost letter, rain, illness, or a sudden death.
Lincoln did that work to make the present promises possible.